Shayak Chakraborty is an alumnus of Gujarat National Law University who graduated in 2013. During his school and college days he was very active in debating and started the Debating League at GNLU. He worked at the Calcutta Sessions Court under the aegis of the Chief Public Prosecutor before assuming a practice at the Calcutta High Court as an Advocate-on-Record. He is a certified mediator and focuses his litigation practice on civil, commercial and corporate, criminal and constitutional law. At present he has an independent practice. In this interview he talks to us about:
- The required skills and the importance of mentors in litigation
- The scope of ADR in the Indian judicial system
- His experience working in the Calcutta Sessions and Calcutta High Court.
What would be a brief introduction of yourself?
I graduated from Gujarat National Law University in the year 2013, and I am currently practicing law in the High Court of Judicature at Calcutta. I used to practice criminal law in the lower courts here in Kolkata before making the shift to the High Court last year.
Were there any activities you participated in that honed your skills as a litigator? How are they relevant now?
I’d say the activity that helped me the most in litigation was debating. I used to be an active debater during my school days in La Martiniere for Boys, and continued that during my college days, where I founded the GNLU Debating Society in my 2nd year. Debating was a passion for me, although I wasn’t the best debater in my school (which had a fiercely competitive intra-school debating league), I was always an ace in extempore debates, where the skill of thinking on your feet and out of the box is all-important. Looking back, this is what honed my skills the most, because while every lawyer should be able research the law and frame the argument well, how one responds to arguments in Court with little preparation and dodges tough questions from the judge is what separates a good lawyer from the rest. So definitely debating was the most important activity which helped me in becoming a litigator, as it not only improved my speaking skills immensely (I was a very shy kid, and would find it difficult to talk to people before I started debating) but also prepared me to frame convincing arguments quickly.
Was there anyone who particularly influenced you while deciding on litigation?
Growing up, two of my father’s close friends encouraged me to take up law – the late Justice Barin Ghosh, who retired as Chief Justice of Uttarakhand High Court before passing away last year, and senior solicitor Debasis Law. Right from a young age, they told me I had what it takes to be a good lawyer, and thus, right from my school days I always wanted to be a litigating lawyer, having never even heard of transactional practice before I started preparing for law entrance exams. I was very sure that Court practice is what I wanted to do, and so I never wavered in my decision to enter litigation despite being a first generation lawyer.
Being a certified mediator and an active litigator, what do you feel is the scope of ADR in the judicial system?
As I have been trained in mediation, I am hopeful about its prospects in India. With the tremendous backlog of cases in our courts and the lack of adequate number of judges for a population like ours, more and more people are unwilling to resort to litigation to resolve their disputes. The ever-growing number of arbitrations in our country bear witness to this effect, as today a standard commercial contract will inevitably contain an arbitration clause. However, the real problem comes from land disputes, succession disputes and family matters since those aren’t usually covered by an arbitration agreement. In such cases, mediation can be a very effective way to bring about a resolution without resorting to the court process, and it is increasingly being recognized as such.
How did you prepare for the bar in a span of a few months?
The Bar Exam is easy enough to pass, provided you have actually done a reasonable job of studying for your LL.B. degree. It is kind of a refresher exam for your law syllabus, and if you have indeed studied decently for your law exams in college, the Bar Exam won’t give you much trouble.
What was it like assisting the Chief Public Prosecutor in the Sessions Court?
Mr. Tamal Kanti Mukherjee, Chief Public Prosecutor of City Sessions Court Kolkata, is a tremendously successful lawyer and a gem of a human being. When I started working in his office, I had no idea about Court practice and had no clue as to how to go about things. While I had done internships during college days, the month or so that one spends on an internship barely gives you even a glimpse as to what Court practice is all about.
Tamal sir encouraged me a great deal, and helped me gain confidence in my abilities as a lawyer. He would encourage me to read every brief and prep every case for him, and had blind faith in my abilities even when I had no faith in them! With his encouragement and guidance, I learned a great deal about how trial works, and how criminal cases progress. Working for the Chief PP also meant that I interacted with police officers a great deal, and I learned a lot from my interactions with them too. However, I am tremendously grateful to Tamal sir for the constant encouragement he gave me when I was a nervous rookie lawyer. Such was the confidence he gave me that I was appearing on my own merely four months after enrollment!
I was briefed to argue for a de-facto complainant in a massive fraud case, where the value of the fraud was more than Rs 20 crore, and I was to argue against bail of two persons arrested on the very day I was briefed! I was tremendously nervous and excited at the same time, and when I walked into the Magistrate’s courtroom, I saw six lawyers appearing for the two accused! The lawyers argued strongly for bail, the Police Prosecutor opposed the bail in the normal fashion, when I asked for permission to make submissions for the de-facto complainant, the defence lawyers started shouting that I had no right to make submissions when the Prosecutor was there. Now, Tamal sir never liked to raise his voice, but would never be afraid of shouting down an opponent who was being too aggressive. I shouted back at the defence that I was seeking permission of the Court and I didn’t need their permission. Possibly impressed by my confidence, the Magistrate gave me two minutes to make my argument. I summed up our position on the matter, to which the Magistrate nodded, and sent the accused to police custody for 14 days (the maximum possible time), something completely unexpected for me, as some other juniors had told me not to expect more than 7-8 days of police custody! It was at that moment I knew I could make it as a litigating lawyer if I continued to work hard and persisted with Court practice.
What was the transition like, moving from work in a Session Court to the High Court? Did you prepare yourself for this change in any way?
I always wanted to practice at Calcutta High Court, but I could not manage to find a senior’s chamber to join when I returned from GNLU. Now, my father knew Tamal sir quite well, and when he mentioned to him that I was very confused as to where to start my career and thus had been doing nothing since returning from Gujarat, Tamal sir suggested that I join him for a few days to start with, to get an idea of the lower courts before joining a senior in the High Court.
After working in the Chief Public Prosecutor’s office for a while, I wasn’t any closer to figuring out a chamber to join in the High Court, so I decided to carry on working in the City Sessions Court, where I was already used to the surroundings and already knew most of the people.
However, my dream of going to the High Court never changed, and on several occasions I found myself wishing I could do more than just practice criminal law in the lower courts. I was granted a sudden opportunity when a corporate client of mine had a case dismissed in the trial court. They called me in to advise them about their options, and I recommended that they file a revision petition in the High Court. They asked me whether I would take care of the matter in the High Court for them, and I readily agreed! Mind you, I had absolutely zero experience in the High Court at the time, but I was confident enough that I’d be able to figure it out. I managed to find a clerk in the High Court who files matters in the Appellate Side, and took his help in filing that matter. When the case finally appeared in the cause list, I got a major thrill seeing my name alongside it as Advocate for the petitioner. I argued the matter, and it was admitted, and since then I’ve been going to the High Court!
What are the challenges of being an advocate in the Calcutta High Court? Why did you choose an independent practice as a litigator and not work in a law firm?
It wasn’t much of a choice, it simply worked out that way! If my client hadn’t entrusted me with the matter, I would probably still be in the Sessions Court looking out for another opportunity to make the shift. I didn’t consider working in a law firm because that entails having absolutely no freedom when it comes to the kind of matters you take up and the manner in which you go about a case, both of which are very important to me. However, it is tremendously tough to work on your own, especially when it comes to getting your own cases. I’ve been blessed by the fact that there are lawyers who have supported me and encouraged me a great deal…I definitely wouldn’t have made it so far without them.
What are the main types of cases you focus on? How did you choose an area of specialty?
I actually do all kinds of cases nowadays. While I started out as a criminal lawyer, I was never satisfied doing only criminal cases, although they are very interesting. I started working on civil and commercial matters, including suits, arbitrations and company matters as I went on in the High Court. Soon enough, there were some writ matters that came my way and I loved handling those cases as Constitutional Law has always been my favourite subject. So, I don’t really have a speciality as I have been doing extremely varied matters. I have even done transactional work such as drafting contracts. While there are many lawyers who specialize in their areas of practice, there are several others who do all sorts of matters.
What is the most challenging case you have ever faced? Is there any case that changed your perspective on the judicial system?
The most challenging case I have ever worked on is a suit matter currently pending in the High Court, in which I’m the juniormost counsel and I’m assisting reputed Senior Advocates of Calcutta High Court. It’s a Testamentary Suit involving immovable property worth several crores, and even though my role has been negligible in this matter, the sheer complexity of the facts and the stakes involved make me thank my stars that I’ve had the opportunity of working on it. It is also challenging because of the way system works. To even ensure the numerous old and dusty Court records of this suit (filed in 1994!) are available for reference during the trial is a massive task in itself!
As for a case that changed my perspective on the judicial system, it is an arbitration matter (challenging the award of an arbitrator and a related petition seeking interim measures) long-pending in the Court. Here, again, I am assisting heavyweight Senior Advocates, and this matter has been kept long pending purely because the State Government, which was the losing side in the arbitration, had adopted delaying tactics in order to avoid paying the massive award passed in the arbitration. I learned through this case how slow the wheels of justice can turn in our system, and how frustrating it can be for a litigant. Even though the arbitration had been resorted to in order to avoid the extremely slow progress of Court, the way our justice system works has ensured that the matter continues to drag on without any sight of coming to an end!
You are an Advocate-on-Record for matters on the original side at the Calcutta High Court. How did that come about?
As per the Original Side Rules of the Calcutta High Court, you have to register yourself as an Advocate-on-record with the Registrar of the Original Side in order to file matters and accept vakalatnama from clients in matters on the Original Side. There are certain conditions you have to fulfill in order to register yourself, including having an office within the boundaries set out in Chapter One of the Rules. I never knew about this till I started working at the High Court. A couple of years ago, I had met a senior solicitor, Mr Sarajit Mitra, who had encouraged me a great deal and had taken my advice on criminal matters on a few occasions. I drop in to his office whenever I’m free, as he is filled with excellent stories about the practice of law, and I have learned a great deal about the profession from him. Sarajit sir has also placed great confidence in me and the biggest cases I’ve worked on in the High Court have been the ones in which he has briefed me as junior counsel. When I found out about the fact that not every lawyer can file matters on the Original Side, I asked Mr Mitra about it. Sarajit sir took out an old leather bound volume of the Original Side Rules, and told me to read them. I found that I fulfilled the criteria for registering, and asked what should I do to register myself. Sarajit sir again pointed me to the Rules, and told me to apply in the manner given in the Rules. I did so, and since then, I’ve learned a great deal about the functions and responsibilities of an Advocate-on-record from Mr. Sarajit Mitra, which has helped me to work as an effective Advocate-on-record.
Are there any suggestions you would like to give our readers especially aspiring litigators?
Always observe your seniors carefully and learn whatever you can from them. Conduct yourself well, and people will help you out wherever they can. It can be very depressing and frustrating to be a junior lawyer, but you have to faith in yourself and your abilities, and you must have the patience to persist with the profession. Focus on the work, and always seek to learn as much as you can.